David Lee Hoffman just can’t stop tinkering. Even after more than four decades. Years after it landed him squarely in the sights of Marin County planning officials. Even after racking up more than $350,000 in fines. The West Marin property owner is still building.
“Can I not build?” Hoffman responded incredulously to a question of his penchant to build stuff. “Can a singer not sing, can a dancer not dance?”
But Hoffman’s decades of building unique Asian-influenced structures on his Lagunitas property, all without permits, have finally landed him in a boiling pot of water.
On Friday, a Marin County judge will consider the county’s request to place Hoffman’s property, and its dozens of illegally constructed structures, under a receivership. The plan would bring in a receiver from Southern California to take control of the property and decide which, if any, structures must go and even whether Hoffman can continue living on the property he calls “The Last Resort.”
“While it’s fascinating and aesthetically extremely pleasing to me,” said Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey, who oversees Hoffman’s district, “it has no sense of connection in anyway whatsoever to the rules the rest of our community live by.”
Hoffman’s unbridled building has fueled a long-standing question: Is the man a serial scofflaw — or a bold visionary facing off against The Man?
Hoffman’s career as a building outlaw began 42 years ago while house hunting. Hoffman decided to buy the wooded hillside property in Lagunitas before he even made it up the driveway. The importer of exotic teas immediately set-about on what would become a long pattern of custom embellishments.
“The first thing that I did when I moved into the property 42 years ago,” Hoffman recalled, “is I disconnected the garbage disposal.”
Instead, the water and food scraps flowing out of his kitchen sink would land in a large wooden box he called the “worm palace” which was filled with earthworms to digest the detritus and turn it into worm fertilizer. The worm-treated water would then flow down a moat to his plants and garden.
“I wanted to create this vision I had of making an environment that was truly sustainable,” he said.
When the county denied a permit for his experimental composting toilet, Hoffman dismantled the septic system and built one anyway — its byproduct became a fertilizer that he uses in the garden.
“In today’s world, how much sense does it make to take purified drinking water to flush our toilets?” Hoffman posed.
Following decades of international travel and living abroad, the new homeowner began channeling Eastern influences as he started crafting buildings on his property. He constructed a towering Godown, or warehouse, to hold his handpicked Chinese teas. He built caves to store the teas at mercilessly cool temperatures. The giant tea house he began in the 70s with its jutting green-tiled roof remains his proudest achievement — “It took me 20, 26 years to finish the roof,” he said.
But among the 30-something structures (he doesn’t know exactly how many) — the key building materials missing from Hoffman’s regimen were any county-issued building permits. County records show numerous instances where inspectors would red tag one of his structures — only to return to find yet another illegally constructed building nearby. County officials said over two decades Hoffman repeatedly ignored their orders to cease building.
“It’s possible that a psychological analysis would find that he simply cannot help himself,” Kinsey said. “We’re here to help him.”
Hoffman’s supporters are also trying to help him by collecting thousands of signatures calling for the county to allow Hoffman and his structures to remain and to recognize the buildings’ historic significance.
“These are worth saving, these are cultural items,” said John Torrey, a former Lagunitas city planner. “This is an entire folk art environment and to damage any part of it is wrong.”
[[330298001, C]] Hoffman said in the early years of construction, his building hardly raised a cackle among the eccentric West Marin artists, musicians and thinkers. But the county’s seemingly willingness to look the other way eroded a couple decades back.
“I’ve been singled out, not that I don’t deserve to be punished,” Hoffman said. “I should be, I’ve been building 42 years without a permit. I should be punished.”
Yet Hoffman thinks the $350,000 in fines he currently faces are excessive. He claims he and county officials agreed on a $60,000-settlement years back but the county reneged. (The county maintains he was the one who backed out of agreements).
But Hoffman remains unapologetic about his decades-long architectural rebellion.
Without bending the rules, a place like The Last Resort would never exist, he said. [[162016145, C]]
Hoffman said he would rather leave his property than to watch any part of it demolished — a demise he said would leave him homeless. But even with his upcoming hearing, last week a worker on the property was busy erecting a pagoda-like structure near the property’s entrance.
Still Hoffman insists he would stop building to save his property. Probably.
“I basically finished the property,” he said. “I suppose could say I won’t build any new structures.”